Emotions have an impact in the way we vote. In every major election, 20-30% of voters make up or change their minds within a week of the vote (including 10-15% on Election Day). In most countries, 30-40% of voters have already changed their minds on the very day of an election.
Those findings have key implications on the interface between those psychological reactions of voters and every aspect of the way in which elections are designed, organised, and run.
Inside the Mind of a Voter
Professor Michael Bruter and Dr Sarah Harrison from LSE's Electoral Psychology Observatory have explored the psychological determinants of the vote (notably personality, memory, emotions, and identity), what elections mean to citizens, and what happens in voters' minds when they are in the polling booth. They have coined the concept of electoral ergonomics which relates to the way in which every aspect of the arrangement of elections affect voters, their electoral experience, turnout, and decision, and how it interacts with their psychology. The project, called Inside the Mind of a Voter (INMIVO), was supported by the European Research Council.
The research has been conducted in 25 different countries, using an unprecedented mixture of groundbreaking methodologies, including panel study surveys of up to five years (using a mixture of face-to-face, telephone, and internet surveys), and many first of their kinds methods such as visual experiment (where they captured the shadow of voters in the polling booth to analyse the emotions their facial and bodily expressions reveal using insights from kinesics), election diaries (whereby hundreds of people kept daily logs of their election-related thoughts, discussions, activities, etc.), partnership with election observers to conduct direct polling station observation (focusing on such things as how voters dress, what they say and ask, the emotions they show, who they come with, etc).
The methods also include other lab and field experiments, in-depth interviews, spot post-election one sentence interviews, family focus groups and more. In addition to the general focus, they also conducted specific research on target groups which included first time voters, young voters, pre-voters (aged 15-17), elderly voters, extreme right supporters, non-voters, etc.
The team have uncovered numerous findings throughout the different aspects of the research work. Here are a few examples from a large list of findings:
- Young people who fail to vote in the first two elections of their lives are most likely to become chronic abstentionists, whilst participating in one of those first two occasions makes them most likely to become chronic participants.
- Among young voters, those who use postal voting become twice more likely to vote for extremist parties than those going to a polling station after controlling for early voting intentions and major social, political, and demographic variables.
- Voters are divided into two forms of electoral identities which we conceive as "referees" and "supporters" with the proportion of referees increasing as democracy progresses. Those two groups have highly different experiences, emotions, and behaviour in elections.
- Electoral volatility is largely explained by the fact that 20-30% of voters in a given election tend to change or make up their minds within a week of the vote, half of them on election day itself.
- The type of ballot paper used in an election has a major impact on the time people spend thinking about their vote before casting it (varying from 20 seconds on average with Direct Recording Electronic voting machines to a full minute for French paper ballots).
- Internet voting leads to higher levels of citizens dissatisfaction and cynicism and ultimately leads to lower rather than higher turnout in the medium and long term.
- Lowering the voting age to 16 increases early turnout and therefore long term generational participation of young citizens.
- Elections elicit strong and largely positive emotions. Many people feel happy when they vote, as well as proud and more strongly part of their national community. Over one in four voters has already cried because of an election.
- Those positive emotions lead to positive reactions as well, elections immediately lead to people associating more positive thoughts with democracy and their nations regardless of whether they voted for the winning party or not, thereby largely explaining the "honeymoon" effect long noticed in terms of government popularity.
- Memory of childhood elections and one's first election as a voter has a determinant effect on our relationship to elections for the rest of our lives.
The project has won several awards and forms of recognition, such as the Market Research Society award for Best International Research. It has led to major impact, with the findings being used by Electoral Commissions and Governments in multiple countries to put voters back at the heart of the electoral process or amend electoral procedures to optimise voters' satisfaction and turnout. The findings have also been used directly or formally referred to by European institutions, a national Supreme Court, and a Parliament, and have been disseminated in events in prestigious arenas such as the European Parliament, UK House of Lords, French Assemblee Nationale, and assemblies of Electoral Management Bodies.
It has also led to multiple books, articles, chapters, reports, as well as keynote speeches, conference presentations, and a viable research initiative called EPO which has organised a major conference in the fields of electoral psychology and electoral ergonomics in November 2015 and continues to hold a highly successful seminar series focusing on methodological advances in electoral psychology research. At the same time, EPO is building partnerships with multiple research groups and departments in partner universities such as Columbia, McGill, Amsterdam, Leuven and more.
EPO is led by Professor Michael Bruter together with Dr Sarah Harrison and also includes numerous associate members from universities such as Columbia, McGill, Zurich, Amsterdam, Leuven, Australian National University, Milano Bocconi, Christchurch, and the Hertie School of Governance. It continues to conduct groundbreaking research in the broader fields of electoral psychology and electoral ergonomics, and to make a global impact by helping independent electoral management bodies and international organisations to put voters and their interest at the heart of the electoral democratic process.